Italy levies eye-opening antitrust fines against Roche, Novartis over Lucentis

For a while now, doctors have been prescribing Roche's ($RHHBY) cancer drug Avastin off-label to treat some of the same vision problems as its eye drug, Lucentis. While that's a much cheaper option for patients, for Roche and marketing partner Novartis ($NVS), it's no good for sales. Now, Italy's antitrust authority has fined the Swiss companies and accused them of colluding to push doctors toward the pricier option--claims the pair denies.

Roche and Novartis cartelized sales of the two drugs, the Italian Competition Authority said in a statement on its website today. According to the regulator, in 2012 their anticompetitive agreement cost Italy's National Health Service more than €45 million in additional expenses. For that, it imposed penalties of €92 million on Novartis and €90.5 million on Roche.

"The unethical tactics of Roche and Novartis to block the cheaper alternative at the expense of consumers are unacceptable," Monique Goyens, director of the European Consumers' Organisation, told Bloomberg.

But both Basel-based companies said they would fight the accusations. "Novartis will use its legal rights of defense according to due process and will appeal," the company said in a statement seen by The Wall Street Journal. "We strongly deny allegations about anticompetitive practices between Novartis and Roche in Italy."

In statements today, the drugmakers also sang a familiar tune about Lucentis, Roche's $1.9 billion revenuemaker, versus Avastin, a fellow anti-VEGF treatment that prevents blood-vessel growth. Lucentis "was designed to act specifically in the eye," Roche said in a statement seen by Bloomberg. "Avastin is approved for the intravenous treatment of patients with certain forms of cancer and is not manufactured or approved for use in the eye."

It's part of an ongoing battle over whether doctors should use Avastin to treat those eye problems that fall under Lucentis' umbrella. Some researchers have found the treatments more or less equally effective in treating patients with wet age-related macular degeneration, though they're far from equal in cost: A Lucentis injection in Italy costs €900 compared with €81 for Avastin, Italian regulators say. On the flip side, the drug has to be repackaged for use in the eye, and it can become contaminated in the process; more than a few infections have turned up in Avastin patients, some of which led to vision loss.

It's also part of an ongoing antitrust crackdown in Europe and the U.S., with pay-for-delay deals taking center stage on both sides of the pond this past year. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the Federal Trade Commission the right to challenge brand-name drugmakers' patent settlements with generics companies, and that same month the EU started in on drugmakers with fines of €146 million ($195.5 million) for holding off copycat versions of Lundbeck blockbuster Celexa.

- read the release (PDF)
- get more from Bloomberg
- see The Wall Street Journal's take (sub. req.)

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